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Balance Between Human Demand & Environmental Collapse

Proinsias Barrett reflects on our recent article relating to the introduction of new Bye-Laws on the River Suir.

Proinsias states, “I wonder is this in response to declining catch numbers in recent years? I wouldn’t know a lot about angling in Ireland today except what I see and hear about it out west. Fishing on the Corrib is big business in Galway city during the season and the anglers braving the fast flowing Corrib in waist high water are an added attraction to the curious gawking visitors.

I landed a beautiful rainbow trout at Lady’s Well in Thurles, as a lad of 11 or 12, with a ‘Spinner,‘ I bought up at John Freeman’s shop in Bothairnanaomh. Then expert for a day, the camera came out and the trout was then cleaned, stuffed and baked, delicious!

fishingUp in Mayo on the Moy River at Ballina, the fishing is also big tourism business with people paying a substantial fee to fly fish for salmon. In the centre of
the town is a part of the river known as the Ridge Pool, where the river bed dramatically declines into a deep pool and the salmon tend to congregate there, possibly a temporary reprieve on their struggle up river to spawn. Here, as in Galway centre, you will see the big-guns casting fly.
An old work colleague from Ballina by the name of Ford mentioned the fact that ‘word in the town‘ had been that the catch rate is down considerably over the last number of years, and that the angling tourists weren’t getting value for money. This story was repeated in Galway five or six years ago, I don’t know if it has improved.

Anyone who has been remotely interested in Irish fisheries lately (I know our politicians are,) will know about the west of Ireland’s battle over the last 25 years to halt the rapid decline in wild fish stocks, particularly Salmon, Trout and Eel’s, fish which migrate, spending their lives moving between fresh and salt water environments. The reasons for the decline cannot be pinpointed exactly and though, as I said earlier, I am no authority on the matter, nor have I been consciously reading up on the latest information, it will suffice to say that the problem seems to stem from a combination of adverse affects, all with negative consequences, for everyone. We neglected the water quality of our rivers and tributaries for too long, many angling associations and voluntary groups across the country did their best for years and lobbied hard for protection.  This latter, combined with pressure from Brussels relating to water quality and habitat directives, finally got a concerted effort going in Ireland and many of our rivers and lakes have improved considerably, many others however have changed irrevocably.

Old man-made barriers in rivers and streams, like weirs and dams, the channelling of water through sluice gates for milling or the construction of artificial waterfalls, for the whim or pleasure of a Landlords lady, caused serious problems for returning salmon trout and eel’s, many of these have been or are being removed/modified now and the fish are returning albeit in much smaller numbers.

A couple of years ago RTE thought it newsworthy to mention that trout had been seen again in the Tolka river in Dublin’s north inner City, a river that had been polluted with tanneries and slaughter houses located on its banks during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th/19th century. The introduction of artificial fertilisers in the 60’s /70’s, and strongly recommended bad advice to farmers that more was good, caused a build up of nitrates and other associated residues in the land, slowly but constantly releasing into the water table and into the rivers and lakes. This eutrophication (process by which a body of water becomes rich in dissolved nutrients,) or leaching process causes a proliferation of plant growth, especially algae which in turn de-oxygenate the water (hypoxia) and blocks out light. Farm improvement schemes of drainage also exacerbated the situation, speeding up the process by removing wetlands, a natural filtering barrier for rivers and lakes. All these unintended effects are now known and scientifically proven and processes are ongoing to change and modify the culture.

Forestry has also been found guilty, particularly cash-crop forestry of conifers and quick growing Christmas tree type plantations. Not only are they an eye sore on almost every hill and mountain side in the country, laid out in endless rows, bereft of wildlife. (From a distance they look like a Prussian officer’s haircut or a Jimmy Doyle flat-top).  When these plantations are felled there is a sudden massive release of nitrates and phosphates which are washed by natural rainfall into streams, tributaries and river sources across the country. Having identified these two contributing factors, processes are now in place for measuring the nitrate content of land, to decide if it needs more fertiliser and the felling of cash crop forestry in a gradual and controlled process. The planting of future cash-crop forestry, insists that new planted forestry leave a natural barrier by all river and lake sides. It’s a start I suppose.

Pine needles are also a cause for concern, as they blanket the forest floor preventing other plant species from growing, but more significantly they acidify the land and water, which naturally flows downwards administering a poisoning affect on many aqua organisms which sprats or baby fish rely on for sustenance. All of these tree species are non-native, and our environment has never had to deal with them before. Our natural environment evolved without pine needles or conifer trees, they are alien to Ireland’s flora and fauna. Invasive species perhaps is a topic of conversation for another time.

Are eels still being ‘trapped‘ down in Waterford, where the three sisters flow into the Celtic Sea?  They used to be ‘trapped‘ for both scientific and commercial purposes, mostly commercial, if truth be told. If the eel, like the salmon or sea trout, who has swam the sea since leaving the river, and managed to evade many predators and all kinds of trawler vessels, returns to find the way to the stream where it began life is obstructed or that there is a system of weirs installed to funnel the fish into traps and it cannot make its last epic journey to reproduce then eventually they will be no more, simple. I know that eel stocks are, or were at least, on the danger list too.

Then there is sea fishing, trawling etc. With today’s technology there is nowhere left for fish to hide. The latest sonic equipment on board even the most
basic fishing boat can literally pinpoint an individual fish in the water around the vessel. The north Atlantic is a free for all these days and Alaska is under the same pressure. Globally populations are expanding, technologies are improving, demand is increasing and waste is an epidemic. Even Krill, those tiny prawn-like creatures which many fish species rely on, have become a commercial target lately. With new technologies more can be landed and processed on-board into a ‘fish protein powder,‘ used in turn to feed farmed fish and agricultural animals…… COMPLETELY UNSUSTAINABLE!  A factory trawler can stay at sea for months and fish 24/7 with full processing and freezing facilities held on-board.

Prof. Brendan Flynn of NUIG’s Political Science Dept. takes a special interest in environmental politics and has delivered some thought provoking lectures on resource politics and their repercussions. During the years 1939 – 1945 has been the only time since records really began that there has been a marked recovery of Atlantic fish stocks, particularly Cod and salmon. During those six years of war, fishing in the Atlantic was a very dangerous occupation and the stocks managed to regenerate themselves before being plundered again to the very gates of extinction.

Prof. Flynn has remarked that the fish stocks of Galway bay were relatively healthy until sometime in 1990/91, when a Russian registered factory trawler was spotted out in the bay. By the time authorities were alerted and diplomatic procedures investigated it was gone again and so too were the fish. The trawler simply homed in on the existing fish shoals and hoovered them up, no nets, no rigging, just a giant hoover type pipe that sucked the fish up by the tonne, before sailing away. Russia at the time was volatile as you remember, the Iron Curtain was opening and no-one knew for sure who was in charge any more. Plus the former Soviet Union had not signed any treaties respecting territorial waters and if they had, we as an island nation couldn’t have policed our waters anyway.

Combine all these factors mentioned above and you begin to see the inter-connectivity of land, river and sea and the difficulty in trying to maintain some sort balance between human demand and total environmental collapse.

Both conditions cannot be separated, one affects the other and if we don’t realistically deal with these myriad of problems, mainly in the policy area of global fishing exploitation, I’m afraid that in the long term, the issuing of licences for seasonal fishing will become a memory.”

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